Clothing sizes are weird. But so are the fits on patterns!

Clothing sizes are weird--I know that's like the understatement of the decade.  But let's talk about clothing (and pattern) sizes.

I've complained before how commercial pattern sizes are not only different than what we expect from storebought clothing, they are also meant to fit terribly.  IMHO.  I've even done a Sewing Circle on how to pick the right pattern size.  But I read an article on Hello Giggles the other day about clothing sizes for store bought clothing, with a lot of good points and sources on the background.  There was a recent NPR story about how stores have their own special sizing (we knew that, if we've ever compared Gap to Target to J.Crew or Forever 21 or anything...), and about the history of standardized sizing.

I knew this from what my professional dressmaker-mother has told me, but sizes were standardized (6, 8, 10, and so on) during WWII.  Measurements were taken on young women, who were paid a small fee... many of these were poor 18-year-olds, so of course they were smaller than we are today.  Here's more of the story:

"During 1939 and 1940, about 15,000 American women participated in a national survey conducted by the National Bureau of Home Economics of the U.S. Department of Agriculture…A technician took 59 measurements of each volunteer, who was dressed only in underwear.Volunteers were paid a small fee for participating…The purpose of the survey was to discover key measurements of the female body…and then to propose a sizing system based on this discovery."

Stores can change their sizes all they want, so we've gotten used to our 2012, well-fed American sizes.  But, what does this mean for us, me and you readers of this blog??  Many of you sew your own clothes.  I've been dealing with picking the right pattern size for some years, and I've got a system down for my fave patterns--but the stakes are high when you're cutting into fabric and putting your time into something, and you really want your project to turn out.

Sewing your own clothes and picking the right size = kinda a bigger deal than trying on clothes at a store and picking a size.  But I've sort of worked out my system for doing this!

The short of it?  In patterns, and according to the standardized sizing of 1940, I wear a size 12.  In stores, I wear a size 2.

Well--My measurements say I would be a size 12 in patterns, but unfortunately it's not totally a science, because while patterns use standardized sizing, one dress may be meant to fit differently than another.  Some patterns will tell you the wearing ease of the finished garment, and you can decide if you want yours to be that loose.

Like, look at the girl in the green dress on the cover of Simplicity 2444, which has recently become one of my fave patterns.

And look how I wanted this dress to fit on me, the first time I made it!(skirt from a vintage pattern)

To get that fit, I did not make the size the pattern would have had me make.  Srsly, check out my Sewing Circle post about how to pick a pattern size, but also...

Think about the style of garment you're making, and assume that Simplicity or Butterick or even Vogue plans for it to fit generously on you.  Clearly, this:


Should fit more loosely than this:


But duh; they're totally different dresses with different silhouettes--but you get what I mean.  Some patterns, you want to fit like a glove, and others are meant to be roomy (at least in some places).

But you think, well, if it's too big, it's easier to make it smaller than bigger, right!?

Well, sort of.  But, it's really frustrating when you cut out a pattern and to be safe you cut out a 10 cuz it says you're a 12, but it's HUGE and the bodice front is so wide it cuts into your arms, and the only way to make it smaller would be to take in the center front, and make a seam down it!  Which would be a totally different style of dress than the original!  So you have to measure the pattern pieces and plan ahead.  Check out that Sewing Circle post.

On a pattern that you want to fit closely, be really careful.

Sad story, recent project--not really paying attention, I cut out a skirt from this pattern, which I hadn't used before: skirt D of Simplicity 2343.


Normally (and OMG don't try this at home!), I check my measurements on the pattern, which tells me I'm about a 12, and I cut out an 8 and it's HUGE.  Don't try this at home.  I'm not advocating cutting out two sizes smaller than the pattern recommends.  I would feel terrible if you wasted your fabric.

But anyway, I cut this out and made it 90% of the way and assembled the backs to front, and tried it on and realized the side seams were like 2" past the center of my hips, I swear.  Enormous.  Gotta either take them in a ton, which might change the shape, or make a seam down the center front.  Because that skirt, view D, was meant to fit snugly!  Not roomy--it's a pencil skirt!  It would look terrible baggy!

But I digress.  A lot in this wordy post.

All I really wanted to talk about was... sizing is weird but it's not just the size, also the FIT.  (Be careful before cutting into your fabric, or make a muslin first or use some cheap fabric you don't care about, or draft your own patterns that fit you perfectly).

Have you had frustrations in the past, with things fitting more snugly or loosely than you wanted?  What do you do to make sure you get the right size, for patterns and shopping?

23 comments

  1. I totally hear you. I'm working on a cute jacket at the moment. I only use burda style magazine patterns and according to their measurements, I'm a 44, I cut out size 40 and then had to cut off 12cm in total from the width to make it fit, so I guess it ended up being a 36... What's the point in making patterns that don't go along with their measurement tables?! Thankfully I didn't waste the whole fabric but I could have got more out of it while cutting. I usually make the lining first and use that as a muslin to make sure it fits right and then alter the pattern accordingly before cutting into the fashion fabric.

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  2. This is part of the reason why I have been so apprehensive to sewing my own clothing. I have a very limited amount of time for sewing, so I don't want to waste what little time I do have (or fabric and money, for that matter) on something that's not even going to fit!

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  3. I do a lot of basting...a lot. That way i can cut down the fabric easily(ish) before seams get serged. Every pattern still ends up a bit too big. My niece's Halloween costumes are a prime offender. I guess they might be sized bigger to allow clothing underneath? I'd rather decide that for myself - we don't live somewhere where it's cold for Halloween!

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  4. Pattern sizes are a constant frustration and why I usually opt to buy thrift and re-vamp or sew basic things. I finally got a book on fixing fitting problems, so hopefully this will become an issue of the past for me. We'll see. As far as store bought clothes, even brands I like I have to buy different sizes in, so it takes forever in the dressing room. Sometimes I think it would take less time to sew a pair of jeans than it would to buy one that fits. : P

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  5. This is why with every new pattern I attempt, I make a muslin first. I know I'm always going to have to make fit adjustments for my figure, but it's also important to test how accurate the individual pattern's sizing is and figure out how you want the garment to fit.

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  6. Don't despair, ladies! It IS totally possible to make clothes that fit; you just have to get comfortable with patterns! Don't give up!

    Making muslins or cutting out and basting the lining together first are great things to do.

    Or, MEASURE the pattern at the waist and bust before you cut it out! Read more here: http://www.adventuresindressmaking.com/2010/08/sewing-circle-how-to-cut-out-right.html

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  7. What you're talking about is "ease"--how much room there is to move about in a piece of clothing. A wiggle dress, for example, has very little ease, whereas a boho blouse has a LOT of ease. There are also two different types of ease: design ease and fitting ease. The process that you talk about above--where you compare your measurements to the pattern measurement (and usually end up cutting a size smaller) is fitting ease. Design ease, on the other hand, is how much extra room (or not) the designer of a pattern has included to obtain a specific look. Big Four pattern maker Butterick actually has a semi-decent chart describing fitting ease in different types of patterns (see here: http://butterick.mccall.com/ease-chart-pages-456.php).

    As for sewing vs. buying this is my take: I'm a busty gal. My measurements are very close (but slightly different) than Christina Hendricks' (aka Joanie from Mad Men). My waist is slightly different shaped than hers (read: not as flat) and I'm slightly wider in the ribcage (but smaller in cup size BUT still possess a lot of boob). This makes is IMPOSSIBLE for me to find fun and cute off-the-rack clothing. My size is just non-existent. If I get a large, for example, it fits my bust but not my waist. I essentially look like I'm wearing a tent/maternity clothing. If I get a medium, it fits my waist but makes me look like a sausage busting out of it's casing in the chest area. So, for me, buying clothing is really an exercise in frustration and 9 out of 10 times, I walk away feeling really awful for myself.

    Sewing--which I've decided to pick up hardcore this year--is a learning curve. I learned last year, for example, that none of my previous endeavors in sewing my own clothing turned out quite right because the Big Four pattern companies draft patterns for people who are a B-Cup. I'm a D. That's a two cup difference. With some research, I learned I need to ALWAYS do a Full Bust Adjustment to make patterns fit. Women with smaller busts (as in A-Cups) can do a small bust adjustment. There is, in fact a whole WORLD of simple adjustments--waist adjustments, bicep adjustments, sway-back adjustments, dowager hump adjustment (which is an awful way of saying "slighly curved upper back adjustment), etc. Sewing has opened up a whole new world for me: I can get the clothes I want in a fit that flatters.

    Incidentally, if you have Adele P. Margolis's late 1960s book Making Clothes that Fit and Flatter in your library, I highly recommend checking it out. She's witty and wise and makes PERFECT sense when talking about commercial clothing and patterns. She also goes into considerable depth about sizing and how it's changed--did you know, for example, there used to be half sizing? It's really fascinating.

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  8. My sizing is all over the place. In the Colette Jasmine blouse I'm working on right now, I'm a 0 at the bust (I measure high bust since my cup size is so large), 2 at the waist, and 8-10 at the hips. I trace all of my patterns first, just in case I seriously screw up (and also to preserve the original), and I traced a 0 at the top tapered out to an 8 at the bottom. The first thing I do with a pattern is tissue fit, but while I find that incredibly valuable, I never catch all the issues that way. After I fix the major issues (FBA and sway back adjustment), I make a muslin and fix any other minor issues that crop up. A lot of the time, I end up taking in the side seams or center a little, because I like my clothing fitted, but I don't think I've ever taken out more than an inch or two, divided between all the pattern pieces. I know it seems time intensive, but after all of that, the real garment is a breeze to sew and fits better than any RTW clothing I own. Also, after spending the time fitting a pattern, you can use it over and over with different fabrics and details (there are examples of this all over Suzanna's blog!).

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  9. I trace all of my patterns onto Swedish pattern tracing paper. If anyone is not familiar with the stuff, check it out! It can be sewn, washed, etc., which makes sizing a breeze. Also, I am able to preserve the original pattern, and thus use it to make similar items for friends and family who are sized differently than I. This is also great for "classic" patterns for styles that last over the years, while weight fluctuates, age sets in, and size just changes in general.

    I personally have giant knockers, which pattern companies don't recognize. Collette fits my hourglass figure better than any other brand, but I generally have to trace the bust and hips 2+ sizes larger than the waist. The pattern paper is a serious godsend for ladies with bodies like mine. It allows me to use the pattern pieces I've traced as the muslin, and adjust as needed.

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  10. I just made my first dress this week! (just have the hem and the neck-line left...) I have already done a nightie, but I made my own pattern for that. This is my first dress that I used a pre-made pattern. I thought I was crazy or meessed up somewhere when I had to take the dress in! It's a pretty roomy dress, though, made of knit, so it's easily fixable without messing up the shape. Plus, I'm preggo, anyway, so I knew I'd have to alter the shape just a tad to make room for my ever-expanding belly. :-) I really enjoy your blog, btw. It's very helpful for people like me who are just starting to sew.
    http://blessedservant.blogspot.com/

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  11. I always do a muslin and cut everything larger than I think I will need it to start out with. I'm a major hourglass (F cup) with a short torso and long legs, so most everything I make needs some serious adjusting to look normal anyway. I generally think of patterns as a "suggests starting place" as far as fit goes ;-)

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  12. I drafted a bodice block, then just use my measurements to make simple dresses and skirts.

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  13. question: do you ever use a dressform for your clothing?

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  14. Thanks for sharing your tips, readers! Some great ones. It's awesome that we can all find ways to make things work for our unique bodies!

    I need to draft a generic bodice pattern that I know fits me... at least for a couple fave patterns!

    @Barbie, no, I don't own a dressform, but it sure would make things easier sometimes! I want to get one when we move to a bigger place.

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  15. ugh i was just ranting about this the other day to mr q&s. in vintage clothes i'm a 14, in 80s clothes i'm a 10-12, in 90s clothes i'm an 8 and in today's jcrew sizing i wear a size 4 skirt and 6 pants. really?!!!! sheesh! in patterns it's worse! i usually cut a 14 in vintage patterns and end up taking out 2" of ease off both sides. either way, my fave things to buy (either finished garments or patterns) are garments that list finished measurements! :)

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  16. I always cut my fabric a titch around my "size," and then fit and dart as I go. I made a "red carpet" gown using this method last spring, when I turned a bodice pattern into a full-length gown with a zippered back and a full flouncy skirt.
    (Shameless self-promotion here: http://www.bymaggie.com/?p=202)
    I don't think I could have dome it without having Eleanor, my adjustable dress form on the premises. Eleanor was a HUGE help to the project - especially setting out where the ruffles were going to be!
    Sewing's a lot like cooking in that regard. You have to try it as you go to avoid a complete disaster.

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  17. Good points, @quietandsmall and @bodicegodice. Sewing is a lot like cooking in that way! Although it's more of a pain to stand up, take off your clothes, and try the thing on than it is to nibble off a spoon...

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  18. Oh my, I totally hear you on sizes. My nightmare was from Burda...http://bombardone.com/sewingprincess/2011/02/my-own-grey-dress-burda-10-2009-no-117/
    I have recently bought some Vogue patterns debating between a 12 and 14...those guys actually have 2 different patterns for those sizes. So I bought one of each..let's see what happens. I often prefer to draft my own patterns from scratch...at least they fit because I start with my own measurements.

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  19. I have some good advice and good news for you. Have you ever heard of the Palmer-Pletsch fitting method? It shows you how to fit your pattern without a muslin and how to buy the right size pattern. The good news is they are based in Portland! Most people have to travel to Oregon or to their new school in Philadelphia for classes but you're right there.

    Also know that if you're having trouble fitting yourself now it will continue to frustrate you as you age because patterns were as you mentioned drafted to fit very young girls and our bodies change over time (and babies).

    Have you ever read books on fitting and thought "I have no idea what they are talking about or how to make these changes?" It will all become clear after their course.

    Your mother would love it too as they can really help us Baby Boomers enjoy sewing again.

    Here is the website: http://palmerpletsch.com/workshop.htm

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  20. Thanks, @Lollie Peeps, I'll check it out!

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  21. Alabaster Shelf12/05/2012

    I've really lucked out. I normally wear a size 4 in the store. But I'm busty so almost every pattern I make I cut a 12. I have to take in about and inch and a half at the back when I do the zipper. But I'm so fortunate that patterns fit me snugly exactly as they are cut. I understand what you're saying about the giant seam allowances. Unfortunately my hands are trained for a 5/8" seam allowance!! Seriously, unless I'm doing 3/8" and can follow the edge of the foot, I always drift to 5/8". Thanks for the tips though!!

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    Replies
    1. It is nice when patterns fit without modifications! I'd worry that you have to take out SO much in the back, though; you don't want to end up with the front piece disproportionately wider than the back. Maybe try cutting out a 10 next time and try it on at every stage just in case!

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    2. Anonymous3/03/2013

      Suzannah, My grandfather measured thousands of school children in Ohio to improve the size system in a nation-wide survey. WWII ended the survey. The US Department of Agriculture had created a complex system of charts and graphs for manufacturers that was never adopted. Had it been adopted, a child's height and weight would be used to determine a child's size instead of age. My grandfather also invented and copyrighted a system to work out the correct proportions of garments that at one time was used worldwide. I'm curious as to where your mother learned of the survey for women. I'm trying to research "The Weirick Way" and would appreciate any information on resources. Thanks.

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